|BELIEVE THE HYPE? NBC'S "THE OFFICE."|
There was an almost perverse glee -- a blinding, building excitement -- among my friends as the premiere of NBC's "The Office" crept closer. We simply could not wait to see how bad it was going to be.
For the record, my pals are not the kind to attend assumed disasters like Miss Congeniality 2 or Be Cool in order to mock them. (We're not in college anymore.) But we had seen and loved the original BBC
series of "The Office" -- the show that made David Brent and Gareth Keenan names worth knowing -- and felt a smug kinship with those characters. It was our secret, a reward we had earned because -- well, why, exactly? Our ability to have cable? Because we had heard of it and other people hadn't? Whatever our self-satisfied reason, "The Office"'s migration to America was an affront to us. Like your favorite indie band going mainstream, or your small-town girlfriend ending up dating Matthew McConaughey, NBC's re-imagining of the program felt like a betrayal of our devotion and loyalty. Now everybody else got to find out about "The Office" --
hey, that's our thing! The only fair solution would be for the show to crash and burn -- a validation for all the "true" fans who were there first.
While I'm not quite that petty, I'm close. Sure, I admit I'm pulling for the show's downfall, but I can't deny a resilient strain of hope that I'll be proven wrong. Maybe I don't want to be just like my friends.
NBC's version, spearheaded by King of the Hill alum Greg Daniels, hasn't tampered with the cult hit's successful formula. Again, we have the bad boss, the pretty receptionist, the scary co-worker and the lovelorn nice guy desperate to win over the pretty receptionist. The new pilot was almost a shot-by-shot redo of the original -- the BBC creators, Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, even got writing credit. The second episode was a slim variation on a BBC episode -- a much funnier BBC episode, it must be said. Thus far, the American update seems to be finding its legs. Or maybe it's just plain awful and can't get cancelled soon enough.
But I'm not giving up on it yet. If I had abandoned ship this quickly on "Arrested Development" or even the original "Office," I would have missed out on something special. I think this is why I hate television so much -- and why most everyone I know now waits to buy whole seasons on DVD rather than watch week by week: We invest hours of patience in the hopes that maybe a new show will be worth it. Sometimes, that takes a full season, and who has that much free time anymore?
Since enough people have explained every reason why the NBC "Office" isn't as good as its predecessor, I'd rather stick with what might make it worthwhile, if things work out properly. Call me an optimist, but I see two important fix-ups that will instantly improve the show.
First off, let's talk about Steve Carell. Funny guy. Smart guy. But not the guy you'd necessarily think of to play the American David Brent, Gervais's caustically needy boss from the UK edition. Carell is sunk whenever he tries to ape Gervais -- the first episode was littered with spot-on line readings that I suppose "Office" virgins might have found funny. Me, I'd prefer Carell to go off and find his own character. Although Gervais's David Brent was always described in press material as "the boss from hell," he actually wasn't. You saw his sweetness -- his total naiveté and self-delusion that he was a comic and artistic dynamo -- but he was a warning to all of us that needing to please can be a dangerous thing. (At the least, you're gonna get ridiculed mercilessly.) You couldn't stand the guy because of his creampuff ineffectiveness, and his racist and sexist behavior underlined how small-minded he really was, but yet your heart went out to him. Becoming a boss had done nothing to give the man respect or a sense of belonging. Poor David Brent was a lost soul.
Carell has never exuded a likable demeanor -- that's not the strength of his comedy -- and I hope the new show pushes him further in that direction. While Brent was ultimately benign, Carell's Michael Scott has an intriguingly psychopathic quality to him. He reminds you of some of those smooth, well-dressed, perfect-hair "Apprentice" contestants who snap within three episodes and start yelling at everybody. Scott's the sort of American boss I recognize all too well: the kind who has gotten where he is thanks to being the most intimidating, belittling, aggressive jerk in the room. With Brent, you assumed he charmingly climbed the ladder because nobody hated him enough to can him; Scott is there because he has a real lust for power -- or whatever power you get running an office at a paper company, of course. This requires a nastier strain of humor than even the original series incorporated, and I hope Greg Daniels and his team figure that out soon. There's nothing endearing about Scott, and that underlying creepiness could be something terrific. As a model for this, Daniels might wish to recall a little show he used to write for called "The Simpsons" and a character named C. Montgomery Burns.
As for the second necessary adjustment, the show's shooting style must be addressed. The original "Office" operated under the conceit that the show was actually a documentary about a typical work environment. The characters were aware they were being filmed, just the way folks in reality shows start begrudgingly accepting those invasive cameras as part of daily life. For Brent, though, it was a welcome chance for validation from the outside world, and he craved the film crew's presence as a way to legitimize his silly little existence.
Thus far, the American version has used the same storytelling technique with very limited results. Perhaps it's because we're entirely inundated with reality programming that this hand-held style feels crushingly unoriginal. Why then did it work so well in the first "Office?" Because it was executed so well, because it didn't pretend to be a mockumentary. After years of Christopher Guest films, where super-quirky characters winked at the camera for laughs, there was an upsetting authenticity about Gervais and Merchant's dreary office environment. It felt like a documentary, the sort of let-the-story-do-the-talking simplicity we abandoned when our nonfiction filmmakers started eating three Big Macs a day or went to find Michael Moore. Not since the little-seen Man Bites Dog had a program exploited the weird relationship between documentary filmmakers and its subjects as well as that initial "Office." We felt like we were spying on those office workers, and we became painfully invested in what was happening to them -- they seemed normal and, therefore, they seemed like us.
Such a rapport between audience and characters takes time, but the new show seems unsure what to do with the cinema-verité conceit. We're bored with the reality look of most TV but we're also overly familiar with the mundane-office sitcom -- I bet you can name 20 comedies that are based around a workplace and, if that was not enough, there's also the film Office Space, considered by some a minor classic of 9-to-5 drudgery. But David Brent and his pals convinced us to re-analyze the workplace comedy. What was their secret? I think it's similar to our willingness to accept certain emotional beats in a foreign film that we would not in an American movie. Despite the fact that it was in English, the original "Office" plunged into the alien milieu and pop-culture speak of distant Britain, so much so that there's a glossary of terms included in the DVD version for us dumb Yanks. It made the show seem foreign enough that it was like watching a parallel reality, one similar to ours in some ways but detached enough for us to watch with an openness we wouldn't permit from one of our own programs.
And this may be the new "Office"'s Achilles' heel. Whenever a foreign film gets remade here in the States, often the poetry of the original is gutted for literalness -- the plot's the same, but it stops meaning much to us. That's how I feel watching "The Office" right now. Sure, it's only two episodes, and yeah, I'm hoping to be surprised. (Let's remember that the original only ran 12 episodes -- a tight, concise arc that escapes the problems successful American programming faces.) But the magic feels drained; NBC has only retained the plotlines and characters. The original "Office" indicted corporate culture, but it wasn't so bombastic as to be some sort of statement of any kind. In a lovably underdog way, it suggested that work defined these unhappy people and made them miserable -- if you felt the same way, hey, what must that say about you? And we went for that delicate love story between that nice guy and the pretty receptionist, something that looks awkwardly sped up in the new version, as if fearing the audience will jump ship unless there's some people to care about.
Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant created a tiny little miracle that found an audience who adored it with all their heart. Can NBC reproduce a miracle?
Believe the Hype Rating: 4 out of 10
Tim Grierson is the editor of The Simon. Believe the Hype runs every other Monday on The Black Table.